Tag Archives: George Monbiot

Boris as PM: it’s no laughing matter

© 2019 – 2019 Zapiro (All Rights Reserved). Originally published in the Daily Maverick in 2019. Used with permission. More Zapiro cartoons at http://www.zapiro.com.

African leaders from across the continent have dutifully congratulated Boris Johnson on becoming the new British PM. This thanks to the votes of an ageing, white, male Conservative party membership of only 92,000 people. With an extreme right-wing cabinet, and the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the UK is poised for a dangerous new era. As a Washington Post comment piece argues, it really is no laughing matter.

What is Africa making of it all? One of the most fulsome messages of congratulation came from President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, combined with a fawning piece in the state-run Herald newspaper. Desperate to normalise relations and seek investment, the Zimbabwean government has struck on a journalistic piece by Johnson penned in 2015, which blamed Tony Blair for the mess Zimbabwe was in, the propping up of Mugabe and the failure to pay compensation to white farmers.

As ever with Johnson’s writing – and much of his political conduct to date – journalistic flourish comes before facts. As anyone reading this blog will know, the history of UK-Zimbabwe relations, especially over land, is much more complex. It may be however that, with the UK concerned about post Brexit trade (despite the bluster, very few deals have been signed) and Zimbabwe keen to be re-admitted to the Commonwealth and become accepted again by the international community, common cause will be found.

To the relief of many, Johnson did not abolish the Department for International Development, nor reinstate the disgraced Priti Patel as minister – although shockingly she got the much bigger Home Secretary post. That said, the department’s mandate will no doubt continue to shift towards promoting the fanciful idea of ‘Global Britain’, focused on promoting UK trade and investment through ‘aid’.

Maybe this will deliver the bilateral partnerships (and cash) that Mnangagwa so desires. But the Zimbabwean government should be wary. What will the terms be? Just as with dealings with the much more powerful (and rich) Chinese, negotiating aid relationships with strings attached is fraught with dangers. With the prospect of a Johnson premiership some years ago on this blog, I argued that we should all be ‘scared, very scared’. Well now it has come to pass, and scary times are upon us.

The ever-astute South African cartoonist Zapiro captured it well in the image above. Trump and Johnson seem to come from the same stock. George Monbiot calls them and their ilk, the ‘killer clowns’. Dangerous, below a thin veneer, and backed by oligarchs interested in making money out of the chaos created by the ruthless destruction of the administrative state. Buffoonery, overt racism, and an overwhelming sense of privilege (of different sorts), combine with a lack of attention to detail, and a proclivity to make up facts to suit the argument. But both are smart, wily and surrounded by clever, dangerous people – from Bannon to Cummings –  with radical political agendas to pursue.

The link to a wider form of authoritarian populism is clear in their respective political projects. Along with close links to oligarchic capital and big business, they see their political base rooted in disenchantment with metropolitan, ‘elite’ politics, which has emerged as a consequence of a politics of austerity and the failure of ‘progressive neoliberalism’. Unlike the traditional Left, right-wing populist politicians across the world – from Bolsanaro to Modi, Orban, Salvini, Duterte and Erdogan – have been able to mobilise this discontent effectively – despite its obvious contradictions. We can expect a UK election soon with a similar regressive, populist rhetoric.

This inward-looking nationalism has consequences for how international relations are viewed. Johnson, like Trump, has a dismissive, colonial, often racist, approach to Africa. His litany of comments is well known. He has argued that Africa (which he described as ‘that country’) would be better off if still colonised, arguing that “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more” and ‘‘The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty”. Meanwhile, he claimed that the Commonwealth is supported by the Queen “because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”. There is a long catalogue that could have come from the mouth of a Victorian imperialist.

Some will dismiss such comments as flourish and frippery. I believe this is mistaken. These are not jokes; they are deeply offensive comments from someone who is the British PM. They reveal much about the current state of the Tory party and British politics. Zimbabwe – and Africa more broadly – should be worried. It certainly is no laughing matter.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.


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Are livestock destroying the planet?

Livestock are essential to rural economies and livelihoods across Africa. On Zimbabweland there have been many blogs on this theme focusing on Zimbabwe’s livestock and marketing systems. But are these animals contributing to planetary destruction through greenhouse gas emissions?

A special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on livestock and global change late last year offered some new data, and generated a minor storm of controversy thanks in large part to the Economist weighing into the debate. The Economists’ summary of a paper by Mario Herrero from CSIRO in Australia and colleagues from IIASA and ILRI suggested that the solution to the high climate change impacts of traditional livestock rearing was to abandon free range pastoralism and shift to a form of intensive factory farming. The answer The Economist believes is “intensive livestock farming, which is more efficient and environmentally friendlier than small-scale, traditional pastoralism of the sort beloved by many greens”. Why is this position adopted? The Economist explains:

… More acres are given over to feeding animals than to any other single use. Meat accounts for a sixth of humanity’s calorific intake but uses roughly a third of its crop land, water and grain. Producing a kilogram of grain takes 1,500 litres of water; a kilo of beef takes 15,000 litres. A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….livestock farming produces 8-18% of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is the main contributor to the build-up of nitrogen and phosphorus in the world’s soils, producing too much ammonia (which is caustic), nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and dead zones in oceans (the result of excess phosphorus). A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….

Extensive livestock production it seems is bad news. This was in part the argument of the FAO’s controversial book from 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow. And it has been picked up by many since, including another FAO publication published recently that provided a rather more rounded perspective than its predecessor. So should Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa be abandoning livestock production to save the planet? Are intensive systems of ‘factory farming’ the answer?

The debate is actually hopelessly confused, and confusing. The data in the PNAS article is clear. Inefficient feed systems result in more greenhouse gases being produced during production than more intensive systems (essentially more belching and farting). And white meat (pigs and poultry) are better than red meat and milk in this regard.

But the assessment does not account for the costs of the other inputs of industrial farming, including fossil fuels used in feed production, housing, transport and so on. Traditional livestock systems are often very ‘low input’, with little fossil fuel dependency, and linked into markets not reliant on massively long supply chains.

Such systems make efficient use of marginal land and resources; as Tara Garnett puts it a ‘livestock on leftovers’ approach focused on adapting existing systems rather than the simple focus on efficiencies. The trouble with studies such as the PNAS one is that the results and conclusions depend crucially on what ‘the system’ is, and what is being compared with what. These choices are crucial and can inject fatal biases, or encourage wayward misinterpretations.

Simon Fairlie produced a brilliant book a few years back, Meat: a Benign Extravagance. It even got George Monbiot to change his views on meat eating. The book argues – with masses of data and careful argument – that meat production if done in an ecologically sensitive and humane manner is fine on a whole range of counts, and should not be discounted as a form of production and source of livelihood. It just depends on who produces it and how. The same applies in the great climate and environmental impact debate, a theme that is picked up in the book, and in a recent paper that questions many of the data assumptions used in FAO’s livestock climate assessments.

In the exchange of comments following the Economist article Mario Herrero distances himself from the claims made by the Economist, arguing that they never claimed that “we should get rid of pastoralism” (they didn’t!). Instead he argues that small-scale intensive systems are the best way forward, as part of a diversity of approaches.

This is all well and good, but how then can the extensive savannah grasslands of Africa be best used? This is not where intensive small-scale systems are likely to emerge. Should they be turned over for carbon sequestration as some argue, or wildlife, with people and their environmentally destructive animals forced off the range? What then happens to the many livelihoods of often very poor people who are dependent on livestock? And if livestock are not consuming the grass, fires or termites might result in less production and perhaps even larger emissions.

The problem with studies of this sort – and perhaps especially the media and policy commentary that follows – is the way that complex systems are simplified. First is the way the accounting is done, with often limited data and missing out key aspects. What is included in the model and how it is bounded makes a huge difference. In this case focusing only on food conversion efficiency gives a distorted picture of climate impacts of different livestock based production-marketing systems.

Second is the interpretation that focuses on the accounted for measure – in this case greenhouse gases – and excludes the complexity of the wider system. Any assessment of costs and benefits must look at the whole picture, including the array of opportunity costs and trade-offs, and so crucially must involve the people concerned who know these best.

Third is the way uncertainties are dealt with, often put to one side (or in very long appendices of supplementary data). In the case of aggregate global pictures across all livestock systems, uncertainties can be massive. Inadequate data plagues agricultural policymaking, and particularly for extensive livestock. Add to that the uncertainties associated with climate change predictions and the data problems are compounded.

And fourth is the way alternatives are defined as part of policy narratives that are developed through such modelling efforts. By defining (narrowly) a problem, a solution (again narrow) is defined. Too often dramatic alternatives to the status quo are recommended, without thinking about the consequences.

Pastoralism is a way of life adapted to dry non-equiibrium rangelands, and is a massive contributor to livelihoods and economies, as well as providing a route to land management. Our book, Pastoralism and Development in Africa, highlighted through many case studies the way pastoralism contributes to development in the Greater Horn of Africa. A similar case could be made for the livestock dependent areas of Zimbabwe, as I and many others have long argued.

Surely the most appropriate response is to seek out more climate-compatible forms of livestock development, based on existing systems, and working with people and their animals, rather than seeking a dramatic transformation that would result in increased poverty and growing inequality in already poor areas of the world. The models may help think through the options, but they are no replacement for engaging with the realities on the ground.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland






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